Common Stock: Knowing Something About Everything

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Common Stock: Knowing Something About Everything, Cullen Murphy, Atlantic Monthly
In an entertaining yet admonishing essay, Cullen Murphy bemoans the growing lack of common knowledge among Americans, pointing to a growing specialization of knowledge. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, he claims 'the dwindling amount of knowledge that Americans hold in common seems to be outweighed by an expanding amount of particularized knowledge held by groups of individuals.' Murphy relays several anecdotes which prove today's Americans fall behind not only other countries, but American children of yesteryear. Happening upon a 1956 edition of the board game Go to the Head of the Class, for example, he realized that 'American children of the 1950s--themselves objects of scorn--had it all over their descendants.' In order to advance, players had to answer questions that are virtually unanswerable today: 'Who was the 'Napoleon of the Stump'--President Tyler, Polk or Pierce?' 'How many seedless apple trees were there in the world in 1905--5, 25, 205, 2,005, or 2,505?' 'Birchard was which President's middle name?' Although Murphy realizes that the trend away from 'common stock' towards 'private expertise' is a logical and efficient step in the evolution of knowledge, he does ask ominously, 'How far should the balance be allowed to tip?'
--Anjula Razdan
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